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Books & writing

Winner of John Le Carré’s OUR KIND OF TRAITOR

I know I’m late making this announcement but my randomly selected winner is:

  • EIREGO

Congrats! Contact me by Tuesday Oct. 26, 5 p.m. PST and you’ll get a hardcover copy of Our Kind of Traitor.

I’ve got fantastic giveaways already lined up for the next couple months so check back often if you didn’t win this time!

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Winners of THE GLAMOUR OF GRAMMAR

With the help of Random.org, I selected two winners:

  1. Jodie Jackson
  2. Jann

Congrats! Please hit the contact button above and let me know where you’d like it sent. I’ll forward your addresses to Anna at Hachette Book Group, who will ship the book to you. If I don’t hear from you by Friday 9/10 at noon, alternate names will be chosen.

Thank you to all who entered. Stay tuned for giveaways of some great titles coming soon!

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Book Review: Stieg Larsson’s THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST

It was with a sense of melancholy that I closed the cover on Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Knopf, May 25, U.S. release) after finishing the last page. For it is the last page; there will be no more Lisbeth Salander, a character I’ve been rooting for from the moment I met her in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, someone I’ve enjoyed spending time with, as antisocial as she is. I tried to prolong the experience, reading slowly and in small spurts, but failed miserably.

The events of the previous books in the Millenium trilogy have led to this (spoilers for those who haven’t read the other two books): Lisbeth being captured and put on trial for attempted murder, aggravated assault and other trumped up charges. She has to face Dr. Peter Teleborian, the nefarious psychiatrist who conspired with a maverick faction within the Secret Police to have Lisbeth sent away to an asylum when she was 12. Teleborian and his colleagues once again attempt to have her committed, neutralizing all claims of how they’ve abused her civil rights, but this time Lisbeth fights back with the help of her journalist friend, Mikael Blomkvist, and his lawyer sister, Annika Giannini, who decides to rep Lisbeth.

Meanwhile, the police are searching for her murderous half-brother Ronald Niedermann, who has unfinished business with Lisbeth. The two share the blood of their father, a depraved Russian spy defector, and in the end, Lisbeth must decide how much she’s willing to sacrifice in order to stop the evil from spreading. (End spoilers.)

While misogyny has been a running theme in these books, the other two also had strong mysteries built in. There are mystery elements here (who’s sending hate mail and stalking Erika Berger, former editor of Millenium magazine?) but I felt Larsson finally going all out with his condemnation of how some men still treat women, of how absolute power corrupts when there’s no one to watch the watchers (it’s convenient that one of the heroes is a journalist, as Larsson was). A dirty police inspector thinks the following while looking at Lisbeth:

She’s fucking retarded, [he] thought…He reminded himself that she was a lesbian and consequently not a real woman.

The fight Lisbeth now has on her hands is less a physical one than an intellectual one, for she must prove she’s not only mentally competent now but always has been. She must convince the judge that she and her rights have been repeatedly violated by men in power, not just because she’s a woman but a smart and resourceful one, a threat to those with malicious intent. These are big claims from a petite girl and I’ll just say her day in court is immensely satisfying.

Before she can get there, Lisbeth spends much of the book in seclusion (though she’s hardly idle), first in a hospital with a police guard then in jail awaiting trial. Because she’s such a badass, I wanted her out putting the hurt on those who deserve it. But she does have a final confrontation in which she makes a surprising decision, one which shows how her travails have changed her. And while I was sad to say goodbye, it’s good to leave her in a hopeful place, one in which she may no longer need to play with fire or kick hornets’ nests.

Nerd verdict: Girl finishes strongly

Buy The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest from Amazon
Buy from Indie Bookstores

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Winners of THE FIRST RULE Giveaway

After I plugged everyone’s names into Random.org, giving extra entries to those who qualified, the website drew Sophie Littlefield as my first winner. Sophie, you get an ARC of Robert Crais‘s The First Rule (pub date 1/12/10), which will be sent to you directly from Putnam. Please e-mail me your address. My friend Lydia there said she’ll also throw in some temporary red arrow tattoos so you can be like Joe Pike!

Random.org selected a second name for the autographed set of photo cards and that winner is le0pard13. I’ll ship you these with some red tats as well. Both you and Sophie will have to send me pictures after you try them on! (Mine’s below.)

Many, many thanks to all those who entered and shared your tales of heroism. It was inspiring to hear about all those good deeds, especially during this season. I always knew there are superheroes among us.

Me, Pike-like

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Book Review: U IS FOR UNDERTOW

I’ve been reading Sue Grafton for a quarter century now, starting in high school when I found her books in the school library (I spent a lot of time there). I devoured the “A” through “C” Kinsey Millhone adventures like an ex-con having his first meal on the outside. Over the years, the books were uneven but I kept reading out of obligation, as if Kinsey had become an old friend whose imperfections I accepted. I listened to her tales even if she rambled a little.

I was thrilled, then, to find her latest adventure, U is for Undertow, utterly captivating. After only a few pages, I knew Kinsey was back on track and I could dive in out of pure pleasure.

The case begins when Kinsey is approached by a young man named Michael Sutton who suddenly remembers something that happened when he was six years old. At the time, Sutton attached no significance to the incident but, after reading a newspaper article about an unsolved 21-year-old kidnapping of a little girl, he believes what he saw were two people burying the child.

After Sutton hires Kinsey to investigate, the story moves back and forth between 1988 (Kinsey’s present) and 1967, when the kidnapping occurred. Grafton deftly juggles multiple POVs; besides Kinsey’s, the author doles out pieces of the puzzle from the perspectives of several characters who are directly and tangentially involved in the crime, painting a full-bodied portrait of each. The plot turns in unpredictable directions and though it might be obvious early on who did it, Grafton keeps you guessing about the why.

The case is complex enough to keep Kinsey busy, but she’s also grappling with personal issues after making startling discoveries about her past which destroy her long-held perceptions of certain family members. Because the books are told in first person and I’ve sided with Kinsey for years against the relatives who abandoned her as a child, these new revelations threw me for a loop as well. Kinsey won’t be able to change overnight but at the end of this book, she takes brave, hopeful steps towards what could be an extreme life makeover.

Nerd verdict: Strong Undertow will pull you in

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Books as Snapshots

In the movie Up in the Air (read my review here), George Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, repeatedly gives a speech about how it’s better to travel light through life. If you put all your belongings in a backpack and set it on fire, you’d be free. It’s easy to see why Bingham believes this since he’s constantly avoiding putting down roots and making meaningful connections.

I’ll admit I lived that way for years and found it liberating. As a kid, I left everything behind in Viet Nam to come to the States. Dogs, relatives, friends, shoes, books—my backpack was literally empty. But instead of refilling it as soon as I could, I left it bare. I’d learned I could survive on very little so why get attached to things again? (This didn’t apply to people, just objects.) When it came to spartan living, Jack Reacher and Joe Pike had nothin’ on me.

Eventually, though, I realized I had it backwards. Since I wasn’t destroyed by my losses, it must be all right to have things as long as I had the right attitude about them. I could probably set my backpack on fire like Clooney’s Bingham if I had to—it’s just stuff, right? As a mental challenge after seeing the movie, I looked around my home, thinking, “That chair’s replaceable, I don’t need that lamp, wouldn’t die without my TV.”

Then I got to my books. Could I live without them? What did they mean to me? And that’s when it hit me some weren’t just books, they’re snapshots of specific moments in my life. I could look at one and remember exactly where I was, what I was doing and how I felt while reading it.

When I was traveling by myself a lot for work one summer, a set of Harlan Coben paperbacks kept me sane by making me laugh through 10-hour flight delays and sleep deprivation. Joan Aiken’s Nightbirds on Nantucket makes me instantly think of my friend Maria Taylor from 7th grade, who introduced me to the Wolves Chronicles featuring Dido Twite, a plucky girl whom I desperately wanted to be when I was young. Maria moved away after 7th grade but every time I look at Nightbirds on my shelf, I remember her.

Mary Higgins Clark’s While My Pretty One Sleeps reminds me of standing in line in frigid weather back in 1985 to meet the author for my virgin signing experience. I was so excited, you would’ve thought I sighted Elvis. And that first successful foray encouraged me to attend other author signings, resulting in many autographed books by my favorite writers.

My Tintin books are the first things I remember being able to read on my own (though I read them in Vietnamese), and the first time I became obsessed with a series as a child, wanting to collect every adventure. A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books have lifted me through difficult times because that bear of very little brain is actually very wise. My copy of The Red Balloon takes me back to the time in fourth grade when I fell in love with Albert Lamorisse’s classic film Le Ballon Rouge because I didn’t need to speak English in order to grasp its wordless beauty.

So, my question to you is: What are the books on your shelves snapshots of? What specific memories do they represent?

While I await your stories, I guess I won’t be lighting my backpack on fire after all.

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Bouchercon Daydreams

All week, I’ve been reading reports about Bouchercon 2009, which took place last week in Indianapolis. (To my international readers: It’s an annual mystery convention held in a different U.S. city every year where fans can hobnob with writers.) The festivities sound like a blast (check out blogger Jen Forbus‘s recap), making me really eager for next year’s B’con in San Francisco, which I plan on attending.

I was so excited, I even came up with some panels and authors I’d love to see at the 2010 convention:

  • Lee Child discussing “Maximizing the Hurt in Your Fight Sequences”
  • Sophie Littlefield on “How to Write 50,000 Words a Day and Get Buff Arms While Doing It”
  • Charlie Huston on “Who Needs Quotation Marks?”
  • Harlan Coben on “Deadly Sidekicks Can Wear Pink”
  • Sue Grafton speaking about her next challenge, “Tackling the Chinese Alphabet”
  • Gregg Hurwitz on “Writing Your First Novel at Age 12, Getting Published at 12.5”
  • James Patterson on “Whittling Down Your Chapters to Just One Comma”
  • Robert Crais and Michael Connelly demonstrating “Effective Greco-Roman Wrestling Moves to Subdue Bad Guys” (This panel will cost extra)

If you’re planning on going, which authors and panels would you like to see?

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Winner & Runner-Up of the 1st Best Nerd Award

As part of my first blogoversary celebration, I asked you to share your nerdy stories for a chance of winning 1 hardcover or 2 paperback books of your choice from my list of available titles. The stories made me smile because it’s clear we’re united by our nerdiness, but I think our owning it also makes us cool.

There were many good stories so this was really hard for me to judge, but I finally chose the following two people as winner and runner-up. The winner gets first choice of book(s) from the list.

Winner: Poncho from Mexico, for traveling all the way to Germany for a trading card tournament and—this is the deal clincher—speaking Elvish. If you don’t even know what that language is, that’s exactly why Poncho won.

Runner-up: novelwhore from New York, for counting authors instead of sheep when she can’t sleep and for terminating relationships with people who use cutesy text lingo and/or emoticons in e-mails.

Congrats to both of you! Please e-mail me or hit “contact” in the upper right corner of this page, provide me with your address and let me know which book(s) you’d like.

Thank you to all who joined in the celebration, old and new friends alike. Stay tuned for more giveaways and another year of nerdy moments!

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Book Marketing Survey

Last week, some friends and I were discussing over dinner what makes us pick up a book by an author we’ve never read before. We all had different and interesting answers and it made me want to hear more.

So, I ask you: What persuades you to try a book by someone new to you? When you walk into a bookstore, what makes one stand out amongst all the competition? Conversely, what qualities would absolutely deter you from reading or even sampling a book?

Some of my own reasons are pretty mundane so there are no ridiculous answers. The more impassioned and subjective you are, the better!

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Interview: Nerdy Questions for THE PENNY PINCHERS CLUB's Sarah Strohmeyer

Photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur

Author Sarah Strohmeyer must have a crystal ball. When she started this book, our 401(k) hadn’t been reduced to 201(k). But now the title of her new novel, The Penny Pinchers Club, could apply to our nation as a whole, not just the support group that Strohmeyer’s protagonist joins.

Kat, a forty-something New Jersey mom and shopaholic, finds evidence that her husband, Griff, is preparing to leave her for his research assistant. Instead of throwing him out or driving off in a huff, Kat must pretend she doesn’t know anything and bide her time until she saves enough money to live on her own. She joins a group of eccentric, budget-conscious people to help her accomplish this goal.

pp clubIn the midst of all the coupon clipping and Dumpster diving, Kat’s old boyfriend resurfaces, someone who conveniently has loads of cash. Many years ago, he had proposed to her but she turned him down for Griff, choosing the hot, romantic guy over the nice, stable one. A couple of decades later with her marriage on the brink of collapse, Kat wonders if she made the right choice.

This synopsis doesn’t do justice to Strohmeyer’s witty prose and endearing characters. It’s a fast, sexy read that surprises just when you think you know where it’s headed. It also gives you easy tips on how to save money and who can’t use that?

I’ve always enjoyed Strohmeyer’s zesty writing from the Bubbles Yablonsky series and now that I’ve had a chance to do an e-mail interview with her, I like her even more (she’s a Colin Firth and Daniel Craig fan!). Read her answers to my nerdy questions and tell me you don’t want to invite her to dinner and have her dog drive her over.

PCN: If you had to start a club to pinch something else besides pennies, what would that be?

Colin Firth

Colin Firth, Photo: Jim Wright

Sarah Strohmeyer: Colin Firth. Or maybe Daniel Craig. Nah, he’s too wiry. Definitely Colin. More to pinch.

PCN: Ooh, I’ll take both. One for each hand, please. What’s the one thing you will never give up, no matter how cash-strapped you get?

SS: Books. Wine. Dark chocolate with cherries. Though not necessarily in that order.

PCN: Kat chose to marry a man she was crazy about over one who had lots of money. What’s the most romantic but cheapest date you’ve ever had?

SS: This is horribly corny and I’m embarrassed to admit it—walking hand in hand as a light snow fell on a quiet December night 21 years ago, stopping to kiss under a tree as my future husband asked me to be his wife.

PCN: That is romantic but neither cheap nor corny. What’s cheap is when Kat goes Dumpster diving with her friend for groceries and an antique chair. What would you Dumpster dive for?

SS: Colin Firth. No, wait. He can’t be the answer to EVERYTHING.

PCN: Sure he can!

SS: I would Dumpster dive for more talent. And maybe if I accidentally threw out my engagement ring. When my brother was 13, we had to comb a landfill on Cape Cod for his retainer that he “accidentally” tossed in the trash. Ninety-degree heat. Stinking lobster shells. Seagulls threatening to pick out our brains. Fun times. (And, no, we did NOT find the retainer.)

PCN: Um, maybe that’s a good thing? One of the characters in the book turned out to be worth millions but struggling with the burden. What would you do with that kind of money? Would you still write if you didn’t have to work anymore?

Strohmeyer's dog, Fred

Strohmeyer's dog, Fred

SS: I would still write but I wouldn’t care if I sold. (Bliss!) I’d like to say I’d use the money to make sure no child anywhere went hungry at any time, but I think that’s a pipe dream. In truth, I’d buy a house I just saw in the New York Times that’s built over a stream in a California forest. Then I’d read, write, cook, hang with my family and play with my dogs. Kind of like my life now, except the $2 million crib.

PCN: I love your list of DOs and DON’Ts for saving money at the end of the book, which included a recipe for making your own mildew-remover. Any cheap, easy dinner recipes you’d like to share, too?

SS: Tortilla casserole:

1 package corn tortillas

2 cans black beans (or be a Penny Pincher and pressure cook your own)

1 large jar salsa

3 Tbs cilantro

8 oz cheddar cheese

DIRECTIONS:

Heat oven to 350. Combine drained beans, salsa, cilantro in saucepan. Heat on low and stir until warm and flavors meld. Grate cheese.

In a casserole dish, spoon some of the salsa sauce on the bottom, cover with two or three tortillas, 1/3 sauce, 1/3 cheese.

Then another layer of tortillas, sauce, cheese and repeat, topping with cheese. Cover with foil and bake for 1/2 hour. Remove foil and broil for a few minutes until cheese bubbles.

Let sit five minutes, cut and serve. Reheats well. Serves tons of people. Can be made ahead of time easily and is great for weekday dinners. Plus, it provides complex proteins and is suitable for vegetarians. (My son’s one—grrr.)

Serve with a green salad. I usually make this on days when my son has a game and then put it in a timed oven so it’s ready when we get home.

PCN: I have no immediate plans to invite tons of people over so that will feed me for a week. Thank you. Next question: It’s said that the best things in life are free. What are some of the best things in your life right now?

Strohmeyer's backyard

Strohmeyer's backyard

SS: Generic antidepressants. Not free, but cheap. Best things are my husband and kids (though my 18-year-old daughter’s a bit of a trial). The view of the mountains out my back door. Running around the dirt roads in my neighborhood. My basset hound, Fred, aka Mr. Bigglesworth. My friends and books. The hat I’m knitting. The fact that my cholesterol is 177 and I feel healthy and alive.

PCN: What would you tell someone who said he/she’s on a budget right now and can’t afford your book?

SS: “I’m sorry.” Then I’d suggest the library, a Penny Pincher haven.

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Does This List Make You Feel Stupid?

Newsweek recently published this list of Top 100 Books of All Time, using some number-crunching method based on other book lists. Browsing through it, I was dismayed to find I’ve read only 13! (It’s even more disconcerting considering I was in Advanced Placement English.)

This does not include the ones I’ve only seen a movie version of, or those I didn’t manage to finish. C’mon, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy went on forehhhhhver. I attacked that massive tome (900+ pages) twice, in high school and college, like Jason on his quest for golden fleece, determined to break through walls of dense prose and get past monster run-on sentences. Alas, I had to admit defeat both times due to induced narcolepsy.

So the books I can claim to have read (and their ranking on the list) are:

2) 1984—George Orwell

15) The Catcher in the Rye—J.D. Salinger

18) The Great Gatsby—F. Scott Fitzgerald

21) The Grapes of Wrath—John Steinbeck

36) Winnie-the-Pooh—A.A. Milne (one of the best books ever written)

49) Hamlet—William Shakespeare

54) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—Mark Twain

58) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—Ken Kesey (even more amazing than the film, if that’s possible)

61) Animal Farm—George Orwell

62) Lord of the Flies—William Golding (freaked me out but blew me away)

66) The Big Sleep—Raymond Chandler

83) The Maltese Falcon—Dashiell Hammett (required reading for noir fans)

99) The Color Purple—Alice Walker (cried like a baby through most of it)

I know this list is far from definitive because there’s nothing on there from the 21st century and only two from the last 25 years. Loads are from at least 50 years ago, many are from several centuries back and a few are from the time Before Christ. I’m surprised stories told via cavemen drawings didn’t make the cut.

But it’s fun to play along. So, which ones have you read? What books do you think should’ve been on there? And if you’ve truly managed to finish War and Peace (#1 on list), please send in a photo and/or book report so I can see you’re not an urban legend.

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